Pumpkins created by engineers at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory are on display every year during the laboratory’s Halloween festivities, which also coincide with JPL’s birthday. Image Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

October 26, 2018 – While it may not be your typical Halloween fare, a pumpkin held aloft by a parachute and an air blower is par for the course when engineers engage in a pumpkin carving contest at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California.

Once a year at Halloween, JPLers take a break from building robots that explore the solar system to craft dramatic creations that have as much in common with standard jack-o’-lanterns as paper airplanes do with NASA spacecraft. Now in its seventh year, the unofficial pumpkin carving contest gives engineers a chance to flex their creative muscles and bond as a team, said NASA mechanical engineer Mike Meacham, who is co-running the one-hour competition this year.

A pumpkin flies, after being engineered by Mike Meacham and his JPL team in the 2017 contest.
A pumpkin flies, after being engineered by Mike Meacham and his JPL team in the 2017 contest. Image Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

“I don’t think, even at the time, they appreciated just how seriously our engineers were going to take it,” he said of the first contest. In 2017, Meacham – who works on the entry, descent and landing of the Mars 2020 rover – and his team won third place with a green Frankenstein gourd that hovered in mid-air, suspended by a mini-parachute and an air blower.

Other past standouts include a team that transformed a pumpkin into a twinkling UFO in the midst of beaming up a (miniature) cow. Another team turned their pumpkin into a spinning carnival-swing ride, while a third created a robotic arm that could flip a light switch on and off.

A shy pumpkin turns off its lights in JPL's 2016 pumpkin carving contest.
A shy pumpkin turns off its lights in JPL’s 2016 pumpkin carving contest. Image Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

Displayed together in a dark room, the creations flicker, lurch, glow and make noise in ways that defy the imagination. A panel of judges awards the first-place pumpkin the same day. The prize? Victory itself.

The rules are simple: no planning, carving or competing during work hours.

“They do it all in their own time,” said Meacham, who’s been brainstorming his ideas for six months. “They go home, use their own resources, plan it out, and all we give them is a pumpkin.”

Iona Brockie, an engineer on the Mars 2020 rover, said the contest gives her a chance to admire the talent of her colleagues. After two years of placing second, her team took first last year, with a celestial pirate ship that sailed past Jupiter on an ocean of dry ice. Inspired by NASA’s future mission to Jupiter’s icy moon Europa, Brockie and her teammates used their mechanical engineering know-how to plan out every step of their hour-long effort, down to five-minute intervals.

“Everyone gets so excited about this competition that has no prize other than bragging rights,” said Brockie, who also helped build the cow-abduction pumpkin. “It’s fun to see everybody bring the same kind of crazy energy that they do to making the flight projects to something as simple as a pumpkin carving contest.”

JPL engineers created a spinning pumpkin carousel in the 2016 Halloween contest.
JPL engineers created a spinning pumpkin carousel in the 2016 Halloween contest. Image Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

This year’s contest takes place on Oct. 29, from 10 a.m. to 11 a.m. PDT, during the engineering section’s lunch break. The winners will be named in the afternoon.

The event will be covered live on NASA JPL’s social media accounts. Photos and video will be posted on NASA JPL’s Flickr account the same day.